Bats and Wind Energy

Disturbing article today in our local rag out here in Pittsburgh. It’s about the toll the growing ranks of wind farms take on bats. On average, it’s estimated, each turbine kills 25 bats a year. The article also emphasizes what this means for farmers, who have lost the bat’s previously taken-for-granted insect-control services. Millions of potentially crop-munching bugs who once would have died now live.

The danger wind turbines pose for bats (and birds) has been known for a while, of course. But I feel especially compelled to comment because lately I’ve been telling people that my wife and I switched to an all-wind energy supplier, chiefly for environmental reasons.

As this blog often emphasizes, no source of electricity is free of impact on the environment. That’s why the best thing any of us can do to help the planet is to simply use less electricity. (Well, yeah, and less of everything.)

Of course, to make much difference this would have to be a national (really a global) project, and it would have ultimately to be a substantial reduction, not some feeble 10 percent. As a society, we should be aiming to reduce our electricity consumption by half – and then to cut it by half again. At least.

(If this sounds crazy, it’s not. My wife and I live in a regular old Pittsburgh rowhouse, and despite the fact that she has a home office, our electricity use is no more than one-third of what a typical household out here uses — pretty close to that half halved.)

Second, to those to whom this bad bat news suggests that we should abandon wind farms, consider the options. Coal supplies about 42 percent of American electricity. Do you contend that wind causes more environmental damage per kilowatt-hour than coal? I wouldn’t try to make that argument.

Strip-mining, including mountaintop-removal mining, decimates whole ecosystems in places like West Virginia. (MTR involves blasting the top 600 or so feet off a mountain to get at the coal inside, then burying a stream valley with the rubble.) And the poison slurry that results just from washing coal sits in big earthen impoundments throughout Appalachia, just awaiting an accident.

And that’s not to speak of the direct human cost of then burning that coal. Emissions from coal-fired power plants are full of lead, soot and mercury, raising rates of asthma and heart disease in neighboring areas and poisoning waterways, and the fish and other aquatic life there. And then you have toxic coal ash, which must be stored … forever.

Wind, meanwhile, whatever its drawbacks, has basically no emissions and no waste products.

Our other big sources of electricity are natural gas, nuclear and hydro. But each of these comes with its own costs, whether you’re drilling for gas, killing rivers with a dam or, you know, wondering when a tsunami’s going to turn the beach radioactive for the next 5,000 years.

Even solar energy is problematic, especially on the industrial scale required to satisfy large chunks of the power grid. Let’s not even consider the damage caused by the mining of the rare-earth metals it takes to do photovoltaic. Simply planting giant solar arrays in the desert, say, would devastate local ecosystems, probably in ways we haven’t even anticipated.

Point is, our energy-intensive society is the proverbial bull in a china shop. No matter which direction it turns, it’s going to wreck something. Even our best options for avoiding destruction – renewable energy sources — are still destructive. We should be switching to them as quickly as possible. But even more quickly, we should be figuring out how to use whatever power sources we employ as little as possible.

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